Residents reported airstrikes Sunday against Islamist positions at Gao, one of the north’s main cities. A militia spokesman contacted by telephone said fighter-bombers also attacked targets at Lere near the Mauritanian border and at Douentza, news agencies reported.
The French operation is scheduled to last in this form at least until an African force can be organized and Malian army units can be trained to send a joint force to restore government authority in all of northern Mali. That could take months, specialists predicted, raising the prospect that the French involvement could be long and risky.
(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)
This is particularly true because the Malian army has been largely leaderless since a bungled coup d’etat in March, led by Capt. Amadou Haya Sango. Moreover, the Malian leader who appealed to Hollande for help, Dioncounda Traore, is a provisional president with limited authority; he was installed after the coup in what was supposed to be a political reorganization on the way to new elections that were never held.
The main Islamist organizations in northern Mali are several branches of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algerian-based group that long has thrived in the region on hostage-taking and cigarette trafficking; Ansar al-Dine, a Tuareg militia closely allied with AQIM, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an AQIM breakaway group.
The Azawad National Liberation Movement, another armed Tuareg group, drove Malian army forces out of the northern stretches of the country last April, exploiting the military coup that left the army command in disarray and the country without civilian leadership. Since then, however, the Tuareg secular movement has been pushed aside by AQIM and Ansar leaders who have imposed strict Muslim law and turned the area into a terrorist sanctuary.
Tuaregs, who differ ethnically from black people who populate the southern part of the country, have long sought — sometimes with arms — to separate or at least gain autonomy from the black-run government. Against that background, the plans for a black African intervention force to restore Bamako’s authority seemed to raise the danger of long-term strife even if the AQIM and other terrorist leaders are forced to retreat into more remote areas.
A senior French security official recently acknowledged that the success of a foreign intervention in some measure depends on efforts by France and others to provide enough aid to the Azawad National Liberation Movement to persuade it to combat the Islamist militias alongside the Malian army and its African backers. So far, he said, that has not been achieved.